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Stepping Out of Character

Looking for a reality bite? Check out the cartoons.

July 05, 1998|Nicolai Ouroussoff | Architecture Critic

Did you ever wonder what critics do, when they're not, well, criticizing? They're a lot more than the sum of their reviews. Almost like regular people. Really. The art critic likes junk TV. The movie critic swoons over opera. The theater critic listens to 'girl' singers. Go figure.

With that in mindwe thought we'd indulge a summer fantasy and let our critics show a side of themselves you might not imagined. Here are some of the things they love to watch or when they're not even getting paid to do it.

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When I was growing up in the liberal academic enclave of Cambridge, Mass., television was a tolerated evil. There were rules to protect us from its deadening banality: No TV until you'd finished your homework. No TV before dinner. No sports, no soap operas, no trash.

So television attained a sort of subversive appeal when I was a child. The silent black box--it hung from the ceiling in our living room as a token of '70s modernity--beckoned like some delicious, guilty temptation. And troubled little children that we were, we always found ways to click it on when our parents were out of the room.

That, perhaps, is why I find the cynical irreverence of animated shows like "The Simpsons"--and more recently "South Park"--so fascinating. The Simpsons are so knowingly in on the joke. The show mocks our addiction. Its references are the films and TV shows we grew up on--Hitchcock, "Citizen Kane," "Dallas"--all part of our common culture, and its genius is to elevate these shared memories to a kind of subversive Pop art, to a form of deep social criticism.

No character better captures the show's cynical humor than Mr. Burns, the heartless, penny-pinching owner of Springfield's dilapidated nuclear power plant, a hilarious symbol of corporate greed. In a favorite episode, Burns loses the only object of his love--a grotesquely battered teddy bear--until it turns up in the arms of little Maggie Simpson. Burns--suddenly a whimpering old doormat--is willing to do anything to get back his stuffed emotional crutch, climbing over rooftops like a cat burglar, offering under-the-table bribes. In the end, of course, the ruthless Burns wins. The baby loses.

But "The Simpsons' " heroes are no less conniving. Homer is lovable because of his idiocy, not his purity of soul. Bart is an anarchic mischief-maker. Even Lisa Simpson, Bart's brainy goody-two-shoes little sister, giggles while watching a cruel animated mouse dig out the eyes of its nemesis--a scrawny cat--on recurring episodes of "Itchy and Scratchy." And we giggle along.

The ultimate target of the show's ridicule, of course, is the banality of most television and the hollow values it espouses. "The answers to life's problems," Homer tells us happily, "aren't at the bottom of a bottle, they're on family TV." Television, doughnuts and beer are the anchors of Homer's life. But if the Simpsons are dysfunctional, we can at least relate to them. The most grating character on the show is Flanders, Homer's church-going, do-gooder neighbor, the annoying replica of so many earnest TV fathers.

"South Park"--the animated Comedy Central series about four foul-mouthed, cynical children living in a suburban wasteland--pushes such irreverence to its most perverse limit. But the subjects are the same: the puritanical moralizing of the proponents of family values, the hypocrisies of the liberal agenda and the ways that television manipulates us. In a memorable TV moment, "South Park" skewered the TV cliffhanger, asking us to tune in to find out "who is Cartman's father" and then never gave the answer. (At least not until a later episode, infuriating devout viewers in the process.) The unspoken question was, "Why do you care?"

In the end, these doughy animated figures are more believable as human beings than the characters of most television dramas--believable because they raise questions about the structure of our daily lives, questions about the underlying social contract that guides us. Foul-mouthed or not, they are genuine social critics.

There is something here to envy if you are an architect. Architecture is everywhere; it is embedded in everyday life. As art, it is--to use culture critic Dave Hickey's phrase--"a forum of contested values," one that ultimately shapes our physical world. Yet the culture of architecture struggles to engage the public. In our time, it has been relegated to a sort of academic ghetto, seemingly irrelevant, ignored by popular culture. This is often as true of so-called subversive art. Take the work of Damien Hirst, for example. In London several months ago, I had a drink at Quo Vadis, the restaurant where Hirst attempts to share his art with the masses. Yet his twin cows' heads floating in formaldehyde become, in this context, silly decoration, a one-liner. Bart would just have snickered and moved on.

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